Synthetic drugs dangerous, can end Army career

DEA photo
The Department of Defense randomly tests for synthetic cannabinoids, which includes spice and K2.
Photo courtesy of the Drug Enforcement Agency.

By Lisa A. Ferdinando
Army News Service

Not only are synthetic drugs dangerous, but they can cost a Soldier his or her military career.

The Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA, said users of synthetic drugs have suffered vomiting, anxiety, seizures, hallucinations, loss of consciousness, organ damage, and even death.

Soldiers can face disciplinary action that could include a discharge if they test positive for synthetic drugs, including “spice” and “bath salts,” said Dr. Les McFarling, the director the Army Substance Abuse Program.

The Department of Defense expanded its urinalysis drug testing to include synthetic cannabinoids, or synthetic marijuana, said McFarling. The random testing began Dec. 16, he said.

The Army prohibited the use and possession of all synthetic cannabinoids in 2011. Bath salts, which are synthetic cathinones, were banned in 2012, he said.

The Army can do probable cause testing, or competence for duty testing for synthetic drugs, he said.

Soldiers who use synthetic drugs are encouraged to self-refer for treatment to the Army Substance Abuse Program or to a military medical facility, McFarling said.

Members who do not self-refer and subsequently test positive can face action deemed appropriate by their commander under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, he said.

“The same rules that apply with any other drug, including THC (the active ingredient in marijuana), cocaine or any other illicit substance, now apply to synthetics,” said Buddy Horne, the civilian and military drug testing manager for the Army.

The use of synthetic drugs in the Army is believed to have decreased, he said, after the DEA began classifying chemicals used to make the drugs as Schedule I substances, prohibited under the Controlled Substances Act, or CSA.

Congress in 2012 permanently placed 26 substances into Schedule I of the CSA.

For example, Horne said, the Army took 10,000 negative drug tests from across the force and then tested them for synthetic cannabinoids, coming up with 250 positives, or a 2.5 percent positive rate, in 2012.

In 2013, the Army tested a brigade combat team, approximately 2,500 Soldiers, and came up with 18 positives for synthetic cannabinoids, he said.

“We feel the impact of the legislation has helped curtail the use of this,” said Horne. “It’s getting harder and harder to get.”

The chemical structure of synthetic cannabinoids is similar to THC and produces a psychoactive response in the brain, the Army said in a policy message.

Bath salts are comprised of a class of dangerous substances perceived to mimic drugs such as cocaine, LSD, and/or methamphetamine, according to the DEA.

In addition to the possible loss of a military career, the message to Soldiers, especially the younger and more easily influenced members in the 18-25-year-old range, is just to stay away from these unregulated substances, said Horne.

Synthetic drugs contain chemicals that were never meant for human consumption and can produce any number of unanticipated, violent reactions that can have permanent consequences, said Horne.

“It’s just overall very dangerous,” he said.

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